By Aileen Atcheson
Charles Stewart Parnell was President of the Land League and Home Rule MP during the 1870s and 1880s. Fanny and Anna were his younger sisters. They came from a Protestant background and were wealthy landowners.
Their father was a County Wicklow man and their mother was an Irish-American. The couple separated when the children were young and Fanny and Anna spent their early years between Dublin, Paris, America and London.
Fanny studied art in Paris and wrote poetry. Anna was wayward and difficult to manage but became a feminist long before feminists became well known.
Fanny had poems, both nationalist and republican, published in the ‘Irish News’. When Charles was leading an obstructionist course in the Westminster Parliament, Fanny sat in the gallery for hours on end. This was a gesture of support.
In 1847, when living in New Jersey, Delia, Fanny and Anna fundraised to help the victims of a famine in the West of Ireland. The potato crop there had failed for four years. Anna wrote about the Land League in American papers. She pointed out the three F’s the Land League demanded: fair rents, free sale and fixity of tenure.
Around this time, it was obvious the Land League would be suppressed. The leading members would be imprisoned. Michael Davitt, IRA founder of the League and Secretary of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, had the idea of forming a caretaker organisation to continue the work and he chose Anna to lead same.
The inaugural meeting of the Ladies’ Land League was held in New York. This was the first time women in Ireland had formed an official body specifically to look for Irish reforms. This was against the wishes of her brother Charles. He maintained a woman’s place was in the home. However, Anna was to become President of the League in Ireland later.
In 1881, the British government banned the Land League and imprisoned most of the leading members. Anna and the ladies in the Land League stepped in as Charles, Michael Davitt and others in the top positions in the League were languishing in Kilmainham Jail, and the ladies supported evictees and prisoners dependants.
They tried to prevent land grabbing and kept local branches of the League in contact with each other. The administrative system needed to be overhauled. The records kept were in a chaotic state. The women compiled a book, known as the ‘Book of Kells’, with all sorts of information in it.
They continued to distribute ‘United Ireland’, a newspaper William O’Brien edited from jail. When the paper was banned and the staff imprisoned, the women manned the printing press and ran the paper themselves.
They travelled long distances across the country to attend evictions. They arranged for wooden huts to be built to house those evacuated. This was deemed unfeminine behaviour and the Church and the police condemned it. Soon, it became known the Ladies’ Land League were more radical than the men.
In America, Fanny toured, collecting money and became a political celebrity in her own right. At home, Anna’s big meetings sometimes turned into action to prevent evictions. This was not what their brothers had intended.
In 1881, the Government banned the Ladies’ Land League and imprisoned some of the members. In 1881, they had 500 branches round Ireland. Charles negotiated the Kilmainham Treaty which agreed to a cessation hostilities. When Charles was released from prison, he dismantled the Land League and the Ladies’ Land League.
In 1882, Anna’s beloved sister, Fanny, died suddenly in America. She was only thirty-three. In spite of being Charles’ favourite sister, he would not allow her to be buried in Ireland. He knew of political disunity. After all this Anna suffered a nervous breakdown. She was shocked by what Charles had done to them both and never spoke to him again.
Anna retired from politics and started to live in an artist’s colony in Cornwall, England. She supported Sinn Féin and Inghinidhe na hÉireann. This she did from afar, by sending money to them. In an awful accident in Devon, she was drowned while swimming. She was only fifty-nine. Charles had died in 1891.